Rights for the Anchicayá River in Colombia

The Anchicayá River before it joins with the Digua River by Mateo Gable Wikimedia Commons

The Anchicayá River before it joins with the Digua River by Mateo Gable Wikimedia Commons

By Earth Law Center

In June 2018, Earth Law Center (ELC) and partners submitted an amicus brief to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and Colombia’s Consejo de Estado , two judicial bodies who are considering the case involving a dam on the Anchicayá River. ELC is proud to have worked with International Rivers and the human rights group Réseau International des Droits Humains (RIDH) on this campaign. 

Meet the Anchicayá River

This Anchicayá River watershed is known for its vibrant biodiversity, featuring diverse and rare birds, amphibians and butterflies. It is also famous for being one of the best birdwatching areas in South America. [1] While incredible in its beauty and vibrant ecosystems, the Anchicayá River is also impaired by damming and other sources of degradation, which also plagues many other rivers in Colombia. 

Threats to the Anchicayá River and communities who live nearby

The primary inhabitants of this Anchicayá River region are Afro-descendant communities who are directly dependent on the surrounding natural environment. On July 21st, 2001 there was an illegal discharge of approximately 500,000 m3 of accumulated sediment from a hydroelectric dam on the Anchicaya River, which gravely affected those inhabiting the region downstream of the dam. [2]

The discharge also devastated vulnerable ecosystems, including aquatic species that live in the River. In addition, there was a scarcity of potable water, crop damage, and harm to riverine and coastal mangroves. [3]

Local Communities Sue

In response, the communities of the Lower Anchicaya region began a lawsuit in 2002 against the energy company in charge of the dam. After years of deliberations favoring the downstream communities, in April of 2012 the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled in favor of the energy company in charge of the dam, overruling 10 years of deliberations. Through Judgment T-274, the Constitutional Court of Colombia declared that the direct valuation studies that had been made in 2002, shortly after the spill, were inadmissible due to lack of objectivity and rigor and ordered that the studies be repeated. [4]

The dozens of communities along the coast of the Anchicayá River then filed a class action lawsuit, led by lawyer German Ospina, which resulted in a decision in 2015 by the Constitutional Court of Colombia. The court ruled in favor of the Anchicayá community and ordered that the communities be indemnified. [5] However, subsequent legal proceedings have once again put into question how much the community will be paid, and when.

The current court case

Afro-Colombian communities impacted by the Anchicayá River disaster continue to seek compensation, which has not been made despite over 17 years of courtroom battles. The communities, represented by attorney German Ospina, most recently sought justice from both the “Consejo de Estado” – Colombia’s highest administrative court – and the International Commission on Human Rights.

While the final outcome of this legal battle remains unclear, the communities remain committed to seeking justice for themselves and the river ecosystem upon which they depend.

What is an Amicus Brief?

Amicus curiae, from Latin, means "friend of the court." [6] An amicus curiae brief (or “amicus brief” for short) offers an opportunity for groups and individuals to submit relevant information to a case to inform the court – without having to be a party to the lawsuit.

In most countries, judges can choose whether or not to read or consider an amicus brief, but either way, it becomes part of the record of that case. In countries like Brazil, the law requires judges and both parties in a case to consider any amicus briefs submitted.

The Process

In Colombia, ELC and partners International Rivers and RIDH submitted an amicus brief to both the Consejo de Estado and the International Commission on Human Rights. In addition to supporting the claims of the impacted Afro-Colombian communities, the amicus brief calls for recognition of the inherent rights of the Anchicayá River in order to ensure its protection and restoration as a right.

 These amicus briefs build from emerging legal precedent in Colombia, where courts have recognized the rights of the Atrato River and the entire Colombian Amazon. It also draws from a recent opinion of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that highlights the movement to establish legal rights for nature. 

As this ongoing legal saga reaches its final stages, ELC is committed to supporting the impacted Afro-Colombian communities until the very end. Therefore, we plan to submit additional amicus briefs to all future courts that consider this case.

How Can Earth Law Help?

Imagine how it would be if The Anchicaya River had rights. What would be different if local communities could defend their rights along with the rights of the river? These rights could include the right to flow; the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem; the right to be free from pollution; the right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers; the right to native biodiversity; and the right to restoration. [7]

Personhood for rivers has already been recognized in New Zealand, India, 43 and Colombia, and nature’s inherent rights are recognized in the countries of Bolivia and Ecuador as well as Mexico City and over 30 municipalities in the US.

Through our amicus brief campaign, we hope that the Anchicayá River is recognized as a legal entity possessing rights. But this is just the beginning, as ELC and partners plan to submit amicus briefs in support of nature’s rights in courtrooms in Latin America, USA, Europe, and elsewhere. 

Take Action Today to Help Save the Anchicayá River

Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law by:

  1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchicay%C3%A1_River
  2.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297735896_Ecosystem_service_valuation_framework_applied_to_a_legal_case_in_the_Anchicaya_region_of_Colombia
  3.  https://drreade.ml/shares/read-online-evaluacion-economico-ecologica-de-los-impactos-ambientales-en-la-cuenca-del-bajo-anchicaya-por-vertimiento-de-lodos-de-la-central-hidroelectrica-anchicaya-spanish-edition-1496049519-epub-by-lola-floresdavid-batkermaya-kocian.html
  4.  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297735896_Ecosystem_service_valuation_framework_applied_to_a_legal_case_in_the_Anchicaya_region_of_Colombia
  5.  https://m.facebook.com/EarthEconomics/posts/10153269431573841
  6.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amicus_curiae
  7.  Universal Declaration of River Rights at https://www.earthlawcenter.org/river-rights/